Laird Hamilton on managing risk and embracing dangerous situations.
Credit: Photograph by Ture Lillegraven

Over the years, I've learned that two distinct forces lead people to put themselves in dangerous situations: ignorance and experience. When a seasoned veteran approaches a precarious situation on a mountain or in the ocean, he usually knows what he's getting into and understands how to assess the risk. The other side of the coin is ignorance – when people just don't know enough to understand that they're getting themselves into trouble.

Obviously, I've paid enough attention to risk so that I'm still here. I think I've always been scared enough to make it through. The majority of my most death-defying episodes weren't anywhere near the water. I once fell through a cornice in Russia riding behind these crazy French snowboarders who had warned us about the danger beforehand. And just as I was getting ready to yell to the guy in front, "Hey, I think we're on the wrong side of the rocks!" I fell into a hole in the cornice and landed down inside it, on a ledge.

Complacency is your enemy. Just because you think you can handle a situation, don't disrespect the fact that it can hit you hard or that you can be the first to fall.

When we first started riding Jaws, Maui's monster break called Peahi by the locals, all the best surfers, the guys who had the skill and experience to handle it, were the most conservative. In fact, the more skilled the surfer, the more cautious he was. It was all these less skilled yee-haw guys who would go out and throw themselves into these situations that they really didn't understand. It was a certain kind of ignorance – they didn't have the experience to know exactly what they were getting into. Watching these guys can make it feel like the angels are busy protecting all the fools. That's why if you know what you're doing, you have to be really smart.

When I'm going into a situation I don't understand or have experience with, I find somebody who knows what he's doing, and I hang next to him. I watch, I listen, I study, and I take advantage of his time, because even though I might not have the luxury of having his experience, if I'm smart, I can benefit from him and use him as an adviser.

Anyone who knows what he's doing takes a serious attitude toward a risky situation and doesn't take it lightly. You know that saying "There's bold pilots, and old pilots, but there's no old, bold pilots." There's a certain truth to that. It's a traumatic experience getting caught in an avalanche or getting held down by a wave, and often the punishment is more emotional than physical. Even before something happens, our minds can become a source of irrational fear – when imagination is more powerful than reality. All the people I know who have been bitten by sharks are less afraid of sharks now. Every one of them. I think they imagined being attacked by a shark would be so much worse than it actually was.

Of course, you will fail. But if you can endure the punishment when you get in over your head, you'll benefit and be able to apply the experience to other situations. This makes it less scary: You've watched, learned, tried, and survived it – and it wasn't as bad as you thought it would be.

Risk has been exponentially accelerated because of the internet and the notoriety that comes from all the daredevil videos. When you see guys jumping from outer space, riding 100-foot waves, and doing triple backflips on dirt bikes, you're kind of like, "OK, now what am I going to do?" Remember, these phenoms are one in a million. The rest of the guys are all being hauled away on gurneys.

When it comes to risk, a good rule of thumb is: "Would you do it if no one was watching?" I have to ask myself that. Maybe I need at least one buddy to see me, though, so I can ask him how it looks!